Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Srdjan Dragojevic, The Wounds (Yugoslavia, 1998)

Emir Kusturica, Underground (Yugoslavia, 1995)

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

My 20th Century

A Short Film About Killing, Poland, 1988

Friday, March 2, 2007

Special Treatment, Yugoslavia, 1980.

WR Mysteries The Organism, Yugoslavia, 1971.

Adoption, Hungary, 1975.

Directed by a feminist filmmaker, this movie has a female protagonist and emphasizes relationships among women. It also deals with gender, sexuality and the conflict between life stages. The black and white photography of the film highlights its textural, emotional qualities.
Kata, the main character of the film is a woodworking woman seemingly on the brink of middle age. She is very much like a spinster, only without a family to give her emotional support. As such, she feels lonely and wishes for a child to care for and fill the void in the life. Kata is unsuccessful to have a baby with Joska, the married man with whom she is having an affair. She later stumbles upon Anna, a teenage girl from a nearby orphanage.
It is through the relationship between Anna and Kata that the film explores issues of gender, life stages, and sexuality. Anna has a nebulous presence in Kata’s life as she stands-in somewhere within the range of a surrogate daughter and a lover or friend. While viewing the film, I felt a sexual between the two women, particularly during the first night when Anna is given a place to sleep and later gets into bed with Kata. The sexual tension however is very ambiguous because on screen it is not portrayed as erotic but seems to be arising simply from need to be held. This tension is compounded with the fact that during this scene the viewer is not sure whether or not Anna’s partner is male or female. When Anna brings her partner to Kata’s house and sex in the empty house, upon returning, Kata seems to have mixed emotions and jealousy when she discovers the young lovers in bed. The initial scene that introduces Anna’s lover makes him look very androgynous.
I think that the girl projects a lesbian tension because she may assume something about Kata’s spinster sexuality and plays on her vulnerability. It is obvious that she is aware of Kata’s discomfort of having to see the wistful interaction between the two lovers. I think that the film suggests through all of this that relationships among women can be simultaneously warm, cruel, and masochistic.

The Witness, Hungary, 1969

A comedy cult film-classic about a period in Hungary when the most oppressive communist regime was in power. The film parodies the nomenklatura, people enjoyed special privileges (e.g. education, good jobs) under communist regimes. Ascension to rank in the bureaucracy is not so much based on competency as immediate usefulness. As the main character is promoted to various jobs, he refers to himself as “just an idiot,” which reflects an alienation to the regime’s logic.
The plot of the film revolves around the main character as he unknowingly stumbles into trouble with the various jobs he is offered. At end of the film, the main character enters trial for the supposed crimes he has committed against the regime.
During this period of Hungary’s history, trials and executions were theatrical, and confessions were fabricated by torture. Moreover, the court already a verdict before the trial, and the person was made to recite the story for rhetorical purposes. These trials were comedic only after the oppression died down and people sardonically reflected on the absurdity of the whole period. The comedy of the film is an afterthought to not only to the regime’s horrific oppression but more so its utter incompetence.
The cult value of the film lies in the fact that people were able to identify with the absurd situations and rhetoric, the absurd politicization of every aspect of life. The satire and parodic situations in this film were actually closer to reality. For example, the rhetorical celebration of the first orange inadvertently created an ironic awareness of the deficiencies of communism in comparison to imperialism. To combat this perception, communist regimes emphasized enormous industrial activity.

The Red and the White, Hungary, 1968

This film takes place in Russia around 1919 during the Bolshevik Revolution. Linear plot motivation does not play an important role in this film. Instead, it showcases the violent rituals of war with a cold and distant visual style. The director makes the viewer consider the absurdity of human violence against a quiet landscape. Nihilism pervades the screen as the director stripes away contextualization and codes that prevent the spectator from distinguishing protagonists and individuals. Mostly composed of long shots, the film impedes identification by the spectator to characters by placing the camera far away. Because there is no point of identification, the spectator is left with no sense of emotional involvement. No psychology of the characters is given, making it difficult to determine why characters are motivated to make certain decisions and action. Even if there are sparse moments of individual choice, in the larger military context, they are trivial and meaningless.

It is a lot about patterns of simultaneous chaos and form—the actions of soldiers reminiscent of a game with arbitrary rules. The film refuses to give the spectator a narrative pattern and instead draws attention to the arbitrariness of actions as characters are randomly killed on screen. The only uniting factor among all the male characters that provide a sense of order in the film is a ritual of no mercy. However, while the rituals of executions are presented as formal and ordered actions, they are entirely arbitrary and meaningless. All the men are forced to obey arbitrary capricious rules, making them all the harsher because they are empty.

The film is compelling because of its cold and abstract depiction of otherwise traumatic and extremely violent events. The cold distancing is anti-war and is a subversion of the war genre, as it becomes an alienating spectacle with vapid characters, no point of identification or emotional involvement. It is like being dragged around by a platoon to witness the horrors of war without becoming involved with it. “An absurd comedy without humor.”

The Shop on Main Street, Czechoslovakia, 1966

Tony Brtko, the protagonist in this film, is just an ordinary man simply trying to improve his living conditions amid WWII. The story unfolds in a small town of Czechoslovakia just before the start of the Holocaust. As a fascist ethnic nationalism takes hold, the Jews in the town who own businesses are stripped of their ownership and transferred to various appointed “Aryan” overseers. Tony happens to become one of these overseers through his brother-in-law who gives him a mandate to overtake the little sewing shop of Rozalie Lautmann, an elderly widow. Mrs. Lautmann is confused and does not quite understand what is happening around her and thinks that Tony is simply there to look for employment and to be her assistant. The two begin to like each other and a kind of maternal relationship forms.

Some time later a declaration made by fascist authorities forces the deportation of all the Jews in the town and severely punishes those who help them. Tony becomes caught in the dilemma of protecting both himself and Mrs. Lautmann. When authorities are calling for all the names of the Jews to be gathered in the town square, Tony panics and become drunk. He fells incompetent to intercept and occupies every possible angle of the situation, as he pushes and pulls Mrs. Lautmann in and out of safety until she dies from trauma. Consumed with guilt, Tony then kills himself.

The film shows how fear allowed such atrocities as genocide to happen. Tony fails to intercept because of his fear and dies regardless. However, he is not entirely guilty as the everyman character because there is not much he can do about the situation at the moment. It is already too late because almost everyone has been brainwashed. What led people to actively collaborate or passively permit a fascist regime and genocide? The film places the most guilt on the people who are casual about the situation, if not proud of it. The atrocities happened as a gradual process because few people could imagine how far things would go.

Daisies, Czechoslovakia, 1966

With my initial reaction during the first ten minutes or so, I though the film was pretentious with a contrived avant-gardism and I found the two girls to be incredibly annoying. As the film progressed, however, I changed my mind and found that it lends itself to incisive social commentary. It was banned after the soviet invasion because of its sarcasm and aggressive assault onto communist rhetoric. The visual style of the film is also like an assault onto the viewer with its filters and vivid colors intermixed with black and white.

The film acts as a sardonic exposition of women’s roles and invisibility within the communist regime. Childhood, adolescence, infancy and adulthood are all merged into the behaviors of the two girls, perhaps as a symbolism of the singular and subordinate role of women within the society. The issue of visibility within society is repeated throughout the film, made explicit with the girls’ statement, “we exist” followed by pictures of locks on doors. Throughout the film, the two girls have insatiable appetites and are constantly eating (particularly fruit) and cutting things apart with scissors. The women are rebelling against everything, acting childlike, and dumping men with an infantile and narcissistic gratification of sexuality. Food transgresses into sexuality and commodity.

The film constantly raises questions through its symbolic use of objects that serve as motifs. Scissors incise various objects and phallic symbols, while assembled collages and the constant eating of food raises the topics of commodity and consumption. Labor and productivity were rhetorical values within communism and labor was held as one’s highest duty. I think the fruit symbolizes the redemption of labor and raises the question about how women’s labor was self-redeeming. The film culminates with the girls gorging themselves at a banquet, demolishing it and then trying to reassemble the splattered food in heaps onto the table. The banquet with its piquant food serves a symbol of (male) privilege that existed within the communist system and its supposed classless society. The film was confusing to me because I felt it raised the topic of commodity consumption within an incongruent communist context. Here is my question: If male labor within a patriarchal society is redeemed with commodity and access to women, what is the nature between women’s labor and commodity consumption? Is this question even relevant to the communist context? (If supposedly, within the ideals of a classless society, commodity is distributed equally).

is purely irreverent and revels in the sheer joy of destroying the stifling order under communism as the women perform a kind of moral terrorism that trashes idealism, social norms and mores. It also celebrates waste as an anarchic reaction against the order of productivity and masculine privilege. The women are acting infantile because women do not have equal political representation or social responsibilities, so they revert to traditional gender roles of looking pretty and acting childish.

Loves of a Blonde, Czechoslovakia, 1966

This film is another example of a Czech emulation of the French New Wave style because it is invested more in capturing the gestures and mannerisms of everyday life rather than creating a carefully constructed plot. The film begins with three middle-aged men from the military reserve at a community party sitting around a table. Across from them are three young women sitting at a table who are disgusted with the attention they are receiving from the middle-aged men. Over forty minutes of screen time is devoted to showcase the awkward situation—both the hesitation and deliberations the three men make to approach the young women, and the attempts made by the women to ignore the attention. One girl (“Andula”?), however, seems ambivalent—if not apathetic—and neither averts nor draws more of the attention. Her story ends up being the central focus of the film. She falls in love with the piano player at the party (who is closer to her age) and tries to move in with him at his parent’s home in Prague. Drama ensues between the parents, piano player and Andula.

Before I go on to analyze Andula’s psychology, I want to answer the lingering question I had while viewing the film: Why does Foreman give so much screen time to the party scene? Foreman dwells on the scene with the middle age men because it allows for a deeper exposition of the characters, their behaviors, social rituals and gender relations. Conventional filmmaking would not devote so much screen time to this sequence because nothing really happens (it does not have a progressive plot and the situation could go on forever.) It has more to do with the behavior patterns of people rather than events.

Andula and the other girls live in a dormitory in some rural part of Czechoslovakia while they work in a nearby factory. The rural town has a tremendously unequal gender ratio due to large numbers of young women migrating to the factories during the country’s period of rapid industrialization. As a result, the women are starved for affection and relationships with the different gender. Under the current communist regime, work is valued as the best interest for the country even if the productivity is pointless. After work hours, the women are bored and have nothing to do in the evening. These societal circumstances are reflected in the film as a comic presence for oblique social commentary: Andula’s story reveals the incongruency between what the communist state preached as gender equality and the lifestyle experienced by women who worked in rural factories. Her alienation is a reflection of her involvement in state-mandated inane productivity that undermines her need to experience young adulthood and intimate relationships. The unequal gender ratio in the rural town and its isolation from the rest of society makes her life a void with little agency.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Closely Watched Trains (Czechoslovakia, 1966)

This film is an example of Czech New Wave, an emulation of French New Wave cinema, with its improvisational style. Its sense of informality and loose plot focuses more on the nuances of daily life and on the nature of its characters instead of the progression of an immanent plot. What is absent from this film is a very rigid plot that ascribes a sense of fate. Here, events happen casually and almost at random. Based on a novel, the story revolves around the coming-of-age of a teenage boy who lives in a small rural town of Czechoslovakia during WWII. He is the only male in his family to actively pursue work, although an easy one as a train station attendant, continuing the legacy of avoiding hard labor as his father, grandfather and uncle did. The movie follows his hopes to lose his virginity as a rite-of-passage to adulthood.

Mostly a comedy by way of light-hearted self-deprecation, the film was humorous throughout until the end when the boy has a tragic albeit heroic death. This is another example an ironic, self-deprecating style of humor that mixed comedy with pathos. Part of the reason that this style is common among many of the films during this period is due to the nature of censorship in communist regimes. Films that were outright subversive risked not getting past the censor, so filmmakers relied on more subtle modes of criticism. The film has a lightness with the way it treats people and the comedy derived from the quirky, eccentric habits of the characters, which is part of the referential style of New Wave cinema. The characters do their jobs under the annoying and superfluous Nazi supervision. They indulge their quirks in order to pass the time and avoid the seriousness of the bureaucracy. Even though the story takes place during a horrific war, there is no moralizing quality to it, until perhaps the death of the boy, which inserts a sense of seriousness about the war that changes the tone of the film.

Why would a film set during the war refuse to deal with it directly? I found Dr. Shaviro’s notion convincing, that it is an oblique statement about refusing to get caught up in the vortex of the politics of war. It refuses to be morally inundating as part of a repetitive war-drama genre that pervaded many films of the time.

Sunday, February 4, 2007

Knife in the Water (Poland, 1962)

This is Roman Polanski's first feature film. It breaks away from narrative conventions during a period when most if not all films were concerned with war or made references to it. In this sense, Knife in the Water is a non-conformist film because it does not refer to historical context to frame the psychology of its characters. The focus is entirely internal, entirely psychological, with only three characters. More so, the film does not have a conventional plot with a protagonist, antagonist or resolution. The plot is indeterminable and exists entirely as a skeleton to explore the minds of the individual characters.

Polanski's intention of making a film that examined the psychological and existential side of life is reflected in the style and aesthetics of the film. Frequent subjective point-of-view shots are composed with the characters' backs turned towards the camera, drawing attention to the internal states of the characters. There is a lot of thinking going on and not a lot of talking. This is perhaps the most striking aspect of the film--the absence of dialogue (not a lack of)--and is apparent from the very beginning of the film during the car sequence. The film is brilliant because it does not rely on dialogue to delineate the plot or to express the interactions among characters to a passive viewer. Instead, the viewer often takes the place of the characters and actively participates by imposing thought and motivation onto the characters while they are pensive. I think this kind of audience role-playing is suggested in the fact that it is very difficult to remember the names of the characters throughout the film (I don't even remember a reference to the characters using each other's names.)

As for a social analysis, the film plays out a contest of masculinity between the younger and older man with the wife frequently acting as a mediator (she often keeps the men from fighting). The older man is always showing-off his experience and class to the boy, who assumes the full-fledged role of a voyeur. The knife is a symbol of simultaneous fear and aggression. It is also a phallic symbol-the older man feels like he is losing the contest and seems impotent towards the end when he steals the knife from the younger man. The film incises overconfident masculinities, as the male characters alternate between fear and bravado. I think that at the end of the film, it is the wife who wields the knife because she elicits her husband’s fear with her unbelievable honesty.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Bad Luck (Poland, 1957)

Jan Piszczyk is the infuriatingly naïve main character in this film that simultaneously arouses contempt and sympathy in the viewer. The story begins with him narrating as a middle-aged man the story of his life. Poland is on the brink of war and Jan tries to adapt to the rapidly changing environment in order to survive. However, he does not so much adapt but assimilate to whatever circumstance falls upon him, oblivious to the contradictions. The situations that he finds himself in are totally incompatible. Leading a march on the street with a flag, he shouts both pro-government and anti-government slogans. Occupying every possible position, he is on neither side. He does this throughout his life, always trying to fit in wherever he happens to be, spurred by his desire for seeking self-validation through other people. The major problem, of course, is that he has no engagement with political situation. Out of his desire to please, he exaggerates and always gets caught in a web of lies that expel him to other situations where he makes the same mistakes. His insincerity does not stem from some evil purpose, but from oblivion, nativity and innocence. He has no historical or political understanding of the world around him.

During the class discussion, the position of Jan as the main character in the film and his personality construct was analyzed as a reference to Poland's postwar sardonic self-deprecation of nationalism. Part of what happens under communism is that every aspect of life becomes politicized, resulting in compulsory enthusiasm. I remember Dr. Shaviro explaining that the downfalls of Jan all occur because he is so unbelievably enthusiastic, that in such a bleak period in history it would be hypocritical and insincere. As one character says to him, "I was always suspicious of you because you were so enthusiastic." With this perspective, Bad Luck can be read as a cynical deconstruction of nationalism. The film's sardonic humor and self-deprecation undermines postwar nationalism as a precarious aggrandizement.

In tandem with these observations, my immediate reaction early in the film to Jan's character was sympathy, but then later I felt he was despicable.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Ashes and Diamonds (Poland, 1957).

As we discussed in class, the central theme in this film is the conflict between individual pursuit and sociopolitical obligations. The film uses the condition of Poland's shattered society in the aftermath of WWII as the frame to play out this conflict. Maciek, the main character, is an anti-communist military-operated assassin who realizes halfway during the operation that he would much rather pursue love than fighting after meeting a bar-girl. As he engages more with his personal life, he begins to see the military operation as irrelevant amid the post-war chaos and political squalor.

I think the film’s title, "Ashes and Diamonds," is a postwar metaphor for Poland—perhaps the situation after the war is either debilitating or transformative— in the sense that amid the squalor some people may have a greater chance for certain life opportunities than they would in a closed society. I don’t know if that makes sense. A common thread found in the main characters is a kind of teleological or temporal paralysis. Maciek is pursuing the assassination to an unknowable and indefinite end, the soon-to-be leader is trapped in a never-ending drunken party, and the bargirl whittles the hours away cleaning glasses. As a viewer, I got the sense that the characters are living empty lives filled with doubt and that the society that they live in has lost all its functions. Anomie: “1. Instability in society caused by the erosion or abandonment of moral and social codes. 2. A feeling of disorientation and alienation form society caused by the perceived absence of a supporting social or moral framework” (Webster dictionary).

The tone of the movie is cynical and fatalistic. When Maciek kills the communist leader, nothing really happens afterwards. The assassination is completely superficial and trivial, and the same could be said about the role of the leader. The entire situation of the country is absolutely ambiguous.